Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

Bill Irwin, The Actor All The Actors Know

 

Every once in a very long time an actor comes around that is so good at what he/she does that they make it look like anyone can do it. They make it look easy. Effortless. Add-to-that, an unassuming and quiet demeanor and you get an actor that feels like he’s a part of the scenery.  Like, he comes naturally with the set design, that he just becomes fused in that world.  Meaning, you forget that he’s an actor. You take for granted that he’s really the characters he plays and that he is integrated into the story as a permanent fixture.  I’m not so sure this is coming across as intended…

Regardless, one of these such actors, would undeniably be the phenomenal, Mr. Bill Irwin. He first came across my radar in the live action version of Popeye in 1980. He is a very gifted physical comedian, albeit, 50 years too late. He really has the same physical gifts that made Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and those early comedians so good. You can see it in Popeye right away. In fact, he reminded me most of Stan Laurel.

He has an extensive background in theatre and still does a lot of theatre work regularly, but he also can be seen on TV and in the movies every year, even though you may not know him by name. In 1989, was nominated for four Tony Awards for “Largely New York“: as author of a Best Play nominee, Best Actor (Play), Best Director (Play) and, with collaborator Kimi Okada, Best Choreographer. In 1999, his show “Fool Moon” won a Special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Presentation. Won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, for his performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner.

In TV and Film, he’s starred in some great projects over the years, including: My Blue Heaven, Hot Shots!, Northern Exposure, 3rd Rock From The Sun, How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Elmo’s World, Lady in the Water, Sesame Street, The Good Wife, CSI, Blue Bloods, Sleepy Hollow, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and most recently on FX’s new show, Legion. Can’t recommend him enough, he’s brilliant. He can often be found as his clown alter ego, Bagatelles, along with partner David Shriner.  Check out some of these videos on You Tube. It’s no surprise that he graduated from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus’s Clown College and eventually was inducted in the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1999.

The Jazz Singer, The Real 1st Best Picture

 

The first Academy Awards Ceremony on Thursday May 16, 1929, lasted only 15 minutes and honored only silent films. It was the last Academy Awards to do so as the invent of the talkies had just hit in a very big way. The big subject of the night was talking pictures. This was the last ceremony to include silent films exclusively.

The talking picture development, begun with the Jazz Singer’s famous line “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”, was about to revolutionize the industry, which had been in decline. The Jazz Singer, released during the award season (made in 1927, released in 1928), had not been allowed to compete for best picture because the Academy decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films. It was a travesty, as it probably would have swept the awards that year.

When a film comes around that is this revolutionary, it should be allowed to compete, not be excluded, just because it was so far ahead of it’s time.

That first best picture winner went to Wings, a tale of World War One pilots directed by William Wellman, which at $2million was the most expensive movie of its time. A great film in it’s own right, with some of the best aerial photography ever filmed. We talk about it at length in our blog post, called Dick Grace and Wings.

Also, just a side note, much of the chatter at the ceremony also included how Buster Keaton’s now classic silent film The General had been snubbed.

The original Jazz Singer was a Broadway hit, which opened at the Fulton Theater on Sunday, September 14th, 1925 and ran for 303 performances. The play starred George Jessel (who was asked to star in the movie, but declined!). Also in the cast were Phoebe Foster as Mary Dale, Arthur Stuart Hull as Harry Lee, Sam Jaffe as Yudelson and Howard Lang as The Cantor.

Al Jolson, the star of The Jazz Singer, was directed by Alan Crosland.

Best Stunts of the Year List 1920-1929

 

Here is the list for the Best Movie Stunts for the Decade 1920-1929 as listed in the book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!

1920:  The Mark of Zorro

First time on the list for Zorro (not the last), and for Douglas Fairbanks.  The Mark of Zorro represents the first in a line of Adventure films and Douglas Fairbanks was technically the first swashbuckler, an adventure actor that does a lot of the stunts himself.  He was an incredible athlete, by all accounts, and this film showcases that ability very nicely.zorro 2

1921:  Never Weaken

Harvey Parry admitted on his death bed that he doubled Harold Lloyd on some of the stunts in this movie.  This comedy movie would make way for all the dangerous slapstick comedies to come by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.never tumblr_njqmx6K3Gr1rdfgw4o1_500

1922:  Robin Hood

Great example of Douglas Fairbanks at the top of his game, but in this case he’s helped out by his stunt double, Charles Lewis in several stunts.  This is also the first time Robin Hood makes the list (also, not the last) and it’s interesting to me that several movies hit the list multiple times.  You’d expect that with movie series like James Bond, being highly stunt driven, but still seems like a surprise when it’s just different versions of the same movie, like Robin Hood and Zorro.robin-hood

1923:  Safety Last!

The second half of this film, where he is climbing up each floor of a building is sheer brilliance.  It’s nerve-wracking!  The final few moments hanging from the clock is as iconic a film moment as you get.  It’s a single-solitary slice of film that represents everything that being a stunt performer is all about.  This would be the poster boy for the stunt movement.  In fact, this should be the award they give out at the Academy Awards for Stunts, a Golden Statue of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock tower.safety last

1924:  Sherlock, Jr.

This is the period where Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton keep out-doing each other every film.  But, I will add, that this particular film is just about my favorite stunt film of all time.  It would definitely be in the top ten for best stunts of all time, it’s that great.  Buster Keaton not only blows your mind with the stunts in this film, but it’s also an incredible film cinematically and some of the techniques he develops with this film are revolutionary.sherlock buster

1925:  The Prince of Pep

This was where Richard Talmadge was trying to be an actor, but he soon found out that his talents lay with Stunt work.  He goes on to be a fantastic Stunt Man and Stunt Coordinator in the years to come. In this one, he has a nifty gag where he jumps from the rooftop of one building through the window of the next building.  He makes it look easy.pep2

1926:  The Devil Horse

Yakima Canutt is generally thought of as the grand-daddy of all stuntmen…not that he actually gave birth to all of them, just that he was a big reason why stunt work has legitimized as much as it is right now. He developed techniques for safety and paved the way for most of the stunt men to work behind the camera as an action director or second unit director and as a stunt coordinator.  In this film he shows his early chops as a rodeo star as he rides the devil horse, Rex.yakima captured

1927:  Wings

This film won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, but thanks to Dick Grace, has some great flying stunts in it as well.  No-one crashed a plane on cue better than he did.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

1928:  Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Another great film from Buster Keaton.  This one is another one of those iconic images that help to propel the whole stunt world forward, an amazing stunt, where Buster just stands in one spot as the whole front of the building falls around him.  Could have easily killed him if he was just a little bit off his mark.  Great stunt.Steamboat bill Jr

1929:  Tarzan the Tiger

Every wonder where Tarzan got his signature yell and signature swing from tree to tree from?  Yep, from this movie.  They used it in every Tarzan movie after that.  Frank Merrill was very athletic and did all his stunts in a skimpy loin-cloth.tarzan07

For more information about these stunt performers and these movies, including a lot of great trivia, please look for their chapters in the new movie stunt book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.23.28 PM

Buster Keaton and Steamboat Bill Jr.

 

It’s an iconic image, a cyclone ravages a small town and blows the front of the building down.  As it falls, a man (Buster Keaton) walking away from the building miraculously survives as he stands on a spot where an open window just happens to be, as the building falls around him.  It’s a stunt where just the slightest miscalculation would have killed him.  The stunt was performed with an actual full-weight wall. Half the crew walked off the set rather than participate in a stunt that would have killed Keaton if he had been slightly off position.Steamboat bill JrSteamboat bill jr 2

Legendary Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan has often cited Keaton’s acrobatics—and this stunt in particular—as one of his primary influences. He tips his hat to Keaton in Project A2 by having a falling building front. This movie was also used as a model for Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s first cartoon with sound. It’s interesting to note, Buster Keaton’s sister Louise doubled for Marion Byron during the cyclone scene.Steamboat Bill Jr stunts

Steamboat Bill Jr. was directed by Charles Reisner for Buster Keaton Productions.

Things to look up (go to IMDB):

  • Buster Keaton
  • Charles Reisner
  • Steamboat Bill Jr.
  • United Artists
  • Louise Keaton

Check out our new Book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.23.28 PM

Buster Keaton and Sherlock Jr.

 

Comedy director Leo McCarey, recalling the freewheeling days of making slapstick comedies, said, “All of us tried to steal each other’s gagmen. But we had no luck with Keaton, because he thought up his best gags himself and we couldn’t steal him!” The more adventurous ideas called for dangerous stunts, performed by Keaton at great physical risk. In his own right, Buster Keaton was an amazing acrobat and stuntman. It’s interesting that the majority of the working stuntmen of this era, did so as comedians. This film is arguably Keaton’s best example of his work overall as a stunt performer.sherlock crzy

Harvey Parry, addressing the rumors that Buster Keaton used stunt doubles rather than doing the stunts himself said, “To my knowledge, [he] never had a double. I’ve heard a couple of fellows say they doubled him, but I have never seen this happen. This man was a very clever acrobat . . . I don’t think I could have done [stunts] the way he wanted them. His fall was a different fall. He didn’t just slip and fall down. He’d do a lot of things before he fell down. That’s the way Buster was. You can’t double a guy like that.”Sherlock jr stunt

Sherlock Jr. was directed by Buster Keaton for Buster Keaton Productions, he did it all. I will be straightforward and say that I’ve always liked Buster and think that Steamboat Bill Jr. and The General are fantastic and has some really great sequences, but the motorbike sequence in Sherlock Jr. is just unbelievable. It’s my favorite sequence in all of his films and the first time I saw it, my eyes just popped out of my head.  It’s amazing what he was able to do back then, but just imagine anyone attempting to recreate this today.  It simply couldn’t be done without CGI and special effects. It’s just amazing.sherlock water-tank

Things to look up (click on item to go to IMDB page):

sherlock keatonGlossary of film terms as defined by Wikipedia:

  1.  Slapstick – Slapstick is a type of stick/clapper used in slapstick comedy,it is used to create sounds of slapping so you do not have to make the sound whilst acting slapstick is also a type of broad, physical comedy involving exaggerated, boisterous actions (e.g. a pie in the face), farce, violence and activities which may exceed the boundaries of common sense.sherlock jr

Check out our new Book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.23.28 PM

Best Stunts of The Year List 1913-1919

 

The future versions of this list will be a decade list of the top stunts of every year as listed in the book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts.  Since this is the first list, it will start with the first year listed in the book 1913 and move to the end of that decade of film.

1913:  The Bangville Policebangville police

This is really the first real Keystone Kops short film, and for back then has some impressive stunts, like a series of explosions that follow a car as it weaves down a dirt road.  There are a few pratfalls as well.  Film is so new at this point that companies were still wondering if they could make money in this medium.  A few breakout hits made people realize that film could be a great new business proposition and little mini-studios started popping up in southern California in a place called Hollywoodland.  The rest is history.

1914:  The Perils of PaulineThe_Perils_of_Pauline_(1914_serial)

Women seemed to be ruling the action films in this period and one of the hottest stars/stunt performers of the time was Pearl White. This was one of her biggest serials, and the one that would remain a classic for a new type of cliffhanger series with a chapter being presented to theatre-goers weekly.

1915:  Les VampiresLes Vampires Stunt

Musidora would be considered the first Femme Fatale and a damn good stunt performer in her own right. This was one of the first crime serials and she was a stand-out as one of the bad guys.  Most of her stunts are done while wearing a skin-tight nylon body suit. Her bruises must have been massive.

1916:  IntoleranceIntolerance Babylon

DW Griffith’s Intolerance is as grand spectacle as anything to ever have been put on film and is widely considered to be the first cinematic epic.  The actors themselves do all the stunts and they are massive, with hundreds if not thousands of people on screen at the same time doing incredible battles.  It’s impressive.

1917:  Oh, Doctor!  arbuckle-keaton-st-john-1917

Sometimes the simplest stunts are the best, and nothing showcases this better than a stunt about 10 minutes into the film where Buster Keaton gets smacked by Fatty Arbuckle and he backflips over a table and lands in a chair with his feet propped up, reading a book as if he’d been there all along.  Simply brilliant.

1918:  Cupid’s Round Uptom mix and tony

Westerns really started to grow in popularity and Tom Mix was king of the cowboy serials.  This was his first full-length feature film and showcases a stunt that he would repeat several times throughout his career is different versions.  He jumps from his horse Tony through the window of a moving train.

1919:  The Great Air RobberyGreat_Air_Robbery_lobby_card

Ormer Locklear was the creator of “wing walking” and this film was produced to showcase his new thrill-seeking techniques.  They called him The Sky Dare-Devil.

For more information about these stunt performers and these movies, including a lot of great trivia, please look for their chapters in the new movie stunt book, 100 Years of the Best Movie Stunts!Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 8.23.28 PM

Vaudeville

 

Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment. It was especially popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. A typical vaudeville performance is made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts have included popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. A vaudeville performer is often referred to as a “vaudevillian”.

Lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions, many performers and personalities, such as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, and Eddie Cantor, used the prominence gained in live variety performance to vault into the new medium of cinema. In so doing, such performers often exhausted in a few moments of screen time the novelty of an act that might have kept them on tour for several years. Other performers who entered in vaudeville’s later years, including Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, Kate Smith, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Skelton, and The Three Stooges, used vaudeville only as a launching pad for later careers. They left live performance before achieving the national celebrity of earlier vaudeville stars, and found fame in new venues.

Vaudeville Poster

 

Buster Keaton In Oh, Doctor!

 

Now here’s stunt you just have to see to believe! It’s just that cool.

Sometimes simplicity and finesse are all that’s needed for a very effective and very cool stunt. For my example of this, I present the Best Movie Stunt for 1917, which features Keaton in Oh, Doctor!, where he plays Fatty Arbuckle’s little boy, a reprise of the sort of comedy Keaton and his father Joe had done for years on stage, and pulls off a stunt you have to see to believe—Arbuckle smacks him, Keaton tumbles backwards over a table, picks up a book as he falls, and lands upright in a chair, with the book on his lap as if he’s been there all along, reading comfortably.
 Oh doctor movie storyboard
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directs this short movie for Comique Film Company (a company Arbuckle started with Joseph Schenck, and on another note – when Arbuckle was promoted to feature films, Keaton inherited Arbuckle’s controlling interest in Comique, which launched his own separate career as a comedy star) and Buster Keaton plays his son in the film. It’s a great comedy short just stocked full of funny stunts and gags. Al St. John, from the Keystone Kops (and Arbuckle’s nephew) even plays into the mix as the gambler and has some fun gags on his own.
It’s also interesting to note that not only did Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle give a start and mentor two of the greatest screen comedians of all time, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but he also gave a start to Bob Hope in 1927, when Arbuckle hired Hope to be the opening act in his comedy show in Cleveland. Roscoe then gave Hope the names and numbers of his friends in Hollywood, telling him to “go west”. He had a great eye for talent.
Still from Oh Doctor movie Roscoe Arbuckle

Things to look up (click on item to go to IMDB page):

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Buster Keaton

Al St. John

Joseph Schenck

Bob Hope

Comique Film Company

Oh, Doctor

Glossary of film terms as defined by Wikipedia:

  1.  Gag – In comedy, a visual gagor sight gagis anything which conveys its humor visually, often without words being used at all. The gag may involve a physical impossibility or an unexpected occurrence. The humor is caused by alternative interpretations of the going-ons. Visual gags are used in magic, plays, and acting on television / movies.

Oh, Doctor 1917